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The Astros R Us

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The wider implications of the Astros cheating scandal

MLB: Houston Astros-Workouts Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Because of the cheating scandal the Astros are the most hated team in all sports. Perhaps the most hated team in all sports history. You doubt it? Here’s the reaction of some of the biggest stars in baseball.

Here’s Kris Bryant.

“If they didn’t get caught, they’d still be doing it. They’re only doing this apology because they got caught. There’s a lot of feelings on it. Everybody around the league is really upset, and rightfully so, because it’s really a disgrace to the game.”

Here’s mild-mannered Mike Trout’s take

“It’s sad for baseball. It’s tough. They cheated. I don’t agree with the punishments, the players not getting anything. It was a player-driven thing. It sucks, too, because guys’ careers have been affected. A lot of people lost jobs. It was tough.”

Of course, there’s Trevor Bauer:

I’m not going to let them forget the fact that they are hypocrites, they are cheaters, they’ve stolen from a lot of other people and the game itself was completely unfair. They’ve negatively affected the fans, they’ve negatively affected players, they’ve negatively affected kids and the future of baseball – which is what I’m most upset about.

And, most recently, Cody Bellinger

“I mean these guys were cheating for three years. I think what people don’t realize is Altuve stole an MVP from [Yankees outfielder Aaron] Judge in ’17. Everyone knows they stole the ring from us.”

Although as Astros fans we may quibble with some of the details in these comments, in general we all understand that the Astros were wrong...very wrong. We have said that here on these pages from the very beginning many times. I, for one, have not made any excuses for them. The following is not an excuse either.

One thing that makes the Astros cheating scandal particularly disturbing compared to others besides the Black Sox scandal, is that it was a whole team cheating together. A conspiracy to cheat. A team full of cheaters.

The Astros, all of them, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, et. al. must be really bad people.

Or are they really? Are they worse as individuals than Kris Bryant, Trevor Bauer etc., all fine upstanding citizens who have never cheated?

I don’t think so.

It’s very easy for people on the outside to look at these players and say, you shouldn’t have done that. You should have stopped it. If it were me I would have stopped it.

But the truth is, as much as we don’t want to admit it, environment is stronger than will. When you are in the middle of a toxic culture, you naturally get sucked into that culture, little-by-little, step-by-step, unconsciously even, eventually becoming immersed in the value system of that culture. What looks terrible to observers from the outside eventually looks normal to those on the inside.

Are inner city gang members born bad? Or have they been sucked into a toxic culture from which they can’t even see a way out?

This process happens within subcultures like a sports team, and it has happened to us as a nation.

To me, the Astros scandal points to how important a good social structure is for our moral health as individuals. People all too easily, almost inevitably, adopt as their own the moral code, or lack of such, that surrounds them. We are not nearly as autonomous in our moral decision-making as we flatter ourselves to be.

The Astros didn’t succumb to cheating because the front office just happened to draft a bunch of congenital criminals. These are normal people who accepted the moral culture that surrounded them, just like the rest of us. All these paragons of virtue who are bashing the Astros would have done the same thing if they had been on the team facing the same pressure to conform.

The Astros’ behavior did not happen in a social vacuum. It is just another example of a trend that has deep roots in history.

In my life, at least since the late 1960’s, I have witnessed the systematic destruction of taboos, of the social supports that have traditionally guided individual behavior. These have increasingly been viewed as restricting freedom, as personal pleasure and gain have become the uppermost values in our society. With a few exceptions, the only taboo left is to impose taboos.

We live in a post-modernist world that rejects the idea that morality is rooted in the nature of things, that it is real, that it exists outside of a human conception of it. So, if people no longer believe in absolute and universal standards of morality, why be surprised when subcultures like baseball teams drift into self-interested behavior like sign stealing. After all, we’re paid to win, right? Isn’t this just pragmatism?

For anyone on the team to have said forthrightly to everyone else, “this is wrong, I won’t do this, and you shouldn’t either,” would indicate a pattern of behavior that itself has become taboo. Don’t judge is the main taboo that rules today.

Three or four Astros did not participate in the cheating, but apparently, they did not feel strong enough to try to stop the others. That is not so much a sign of their weakness, as the power of the new taboo, don’t judge the morality of others. From reports, even the stated rationales for being against the system given by A.J. Hinch, Tony Kemp, and Jose Altuve was that it didn’t work. They probably thought it was wrong, but you just can’t say that anymore.

I’m not saying there was ever a moral golden age. Every generation has had its own moral blind spots, and people always and everywhere have succumbed to temptations. If evil didn’t exist, we wouldn’t need morality.

And much to our credit we have strengthened a few taboos , against racism for example.

But in our time, the existence of morality itself is questioned. Predominantly people think morality is just made up, a human construct, and therefore moral rules are flexible. So why are we surprised by Hollywood sex abuse, or billionaire pedophile rings involving top politicians, routine mass shootings, etc. etc.?

In the moral climate in which we now live it is not surprising that one or two team members could convert the 20 or so others into a group of mass cheaters. During my life I have seen the programming take hold that says, never judge anyone or anything. So, when Carlos Beltran started spreading his poison, no one judged. Everything’s relative dude, who’s to say what’s right or wrong.

I suspect that every cheating player felt slimy when he first tried the trash can banging thing. However, the taboo that there are no taboos was stronger than the taboo against cheating, so almost everyone fell in line as the social pressure mounted. Even the apostle Peter denied his Savior when the pressure was on.

In the Bible it is said that God would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah if there could be found 10 righteous men. They were not found, another testament to the power of group think. On the Astros the righteousness of three or four could not overcome the moral degeneracy that had become the team culture.

(No, we don’t use words like moral degeneracy anymore. Maybe that’s why we have so much of it)

No one could tell the team newcomer, Carlos Beltran, “hey dude we don’t do this here. This is wrong.” It has become wrong to say in our times, this is wrong. No, there’s no right or wrong, just choices, and whatever you choose is right for you. Of course, some people, like so many of the current Astros haters, still love to express selective moral indignation when it is in their interest to pose indignantly. Moral posturing has replaced morality.

What happened to the Astros feels to me like a microcosm of what I have seen happening in America for the last 50+ years. When I was a little kid, I saw the Disney movie Pinocchio, a story about the evils of lying. The side character, Jiminy Cricket, sang a song, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” We seldom hear that message anymore, and if we do, it usually corrupts the meaning of the word conscience.

Almost nobody on the Astros had a conscience until they got caught. They are not an anomaly. They are a reflection of us and who we have become as a society.

Someone on the Astros should have stood up and said, “This is wrong.” But who does that anymore? Who even believes that anymore, unless it’s someone else’s tribe you’re talking about? It’s just so uncool.

Turns out, we ARE our brother’s keeper, at least to some extent. One of the Astros should have told his brothers: STOP! Society cannot afford to completely ignore the moral infrastructure that protects us all.

Do I sound to you like some old fogey yelling, “get off my lawn?” If so, you prove my point.